An Unlikely Encounter With Compassion

A few days after 9/11, when I should have been revising my French lesson for the following day, I decided to see a bit of the city and so I hopped on the Metro to explore Paris. Somehow I ended up around the Bastille at 10pm or so and a young, naive American priest should not be in that neighborhood by himself at that hour; or at least that was the case 14 years ago. The city was still tense but there seemed a resoluteness not to let the tragedy in New York keep life from going on. Bravo to the Parisians, I thought, as I started down a long, darkened street that, unlike the subway, led directly to the bus that would take back to the seminary.

My Italian pay-as-you-go mobile phone didn’t work in France — I think all that has changed by now — and so I popped into a phone booth to call home and let my family know I was still okay. Before dialing I glanced quickly up and down the street. Still empty. As I fumbled with my address book and tried to make out the digits on a prepaid calling card, I suddenly became aware that I wasn’t in the phone booth alone. Out of nowhere appeared a group of four or five young men, one of whom pushed his way into the phone booth with me before I even had time to understand what was happening.

“Give me your wallet,” my new friend said in heavily accented French. He was North African. Algerian, I presumed. My head was numb as I handed over the wallet. He took out the cash first. A paltry 200 Francs. Then he rummaged through my cards and pulled out my Iowa driver’s license.

“Americain?” he asked in a deliberate, measured voice.

“Oui, je suis americain”, I replied, my voice cracking nervously.

I looked outside and noticed his buddies watching carefully for any on-comers. One of them looked directly at me and repeatedly punched his fist into his palm.

“I’m sorry about the Towers,” my phone booth companion said in smooth English.

He carefully folded my wallet back up, leaving the ID and credit cards inside. He put the cash in his pocket and gently handed the wallet back to me. As he and his buddies raced off into the dark, shock set in and my knees began to shake at the realization of what might have happened. I wouldn’t have stood a chance against those five guys that night.

But of course, nothing bad happened. Yes, I did lose 200 Francs (something like 70 bucks, I think) — not the end of the world. As far as assailants go, I think I lucked out: It almost felt as though he wished me well in the wake of the disaster back in the US.

The next day my tutor Laurence gave me a stern talking-to about how poorly I was doing on the day’s lesson. Clearly I hadn’t prepared. She was right. After I told her of my unfortunate incident the night before, she felt so badly for me that for the next lesson we took a drive to the house of Monet at Giverny outside Paris and talked about art, water lilies, and country life. I picked up a couple of postcards for my mother, who loved Monet but never had the chance to visit Paris.

I still don’t know what to make of it all: An Algerian mugger who consoles me after 9/11 and a French tutor who rewards my indolence with a road trip.

Life is full mystery.

~BT Waldbillig
December 4, 2015

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